A doff of the hat to my colleague Barry Knight for his recent book, Rethinking Poverty: What Makes a Good Society? In the US, we live in a society where few public officials are ever elected for being champions for the poor* (hence all the coded references to “working families”), and in which the art of blaming the poor for their low estate, while widely practiced, is still ugly and unrefined. Nowadays it takes a special kind of person to bring up the subject at all.
Mr. Knight is special in that way. He’s also writing about the UK.
It turns out that the UK had its own “Great Society” experiment in the post-war era and that, like ours, it foundered. The limited success of anti-poverty programs; the ascendancy of free market economics; the stirrings of the “me society”—these and other factors created fresh openings for attacks on Britain’s welfare state, attacks that continue to this day. Mr. Knight uses data from surveys and focus groups to provide a sketch of “the society we want”—a society, not surprisingly, free of poverty—and to suggest a way forward that does not rely heavily on state or philanthropic actors.
Putting differences of context aside, we can draw at least four lessons from his book:
What was achieved can be easily undone. In the UK, as in the US, hard-won protections for children and others in poverty can evaporate in a single election. How do we shore up gains while we still have them?
Fairness resonates. In a 2015 YouGov survey of 10,112 adults in England, Scotland, and Wales, “fairness” rated above “freedom,” “equality,” and even “prosperity” as a desired quality of a good society. Ape experiments also suggest that a sense of fairness might be “hard-wired” and thus provide a basis for uniting people across class, gender, race, and other differences.
Good societies—at least better ones—are in plain sight. Other countries have done and are doing a better job of providing a social safety net, welcoming immigrants, reducing gun violence, conducting fairer elections, reducing health care costs, etc. How do we build the political will to follow their example?
Philanthropy is largely beside the point. It was refreshing to read a book supported by a philanthropic trust in which so little weight is given to the role philanthropy might play in imagining and ushering in the good society. The next $10 million philanthropic initiative to end poverty will not save us.
In classic Liberalism, the role of the state was to provide a framework of laws under which individuals could prosper by pursuing their own vision of the good. Neoliberals subsequently tilted the playing field in favor of “free market” actors, however significant the damage they might do to social cohesion and other values. In the US, the neoliberal line has now metastasized into a kind of balls-out, post-truth plutocracy that deals with poverty by gleefully shredding the social safety net and jailing its victims. It’s comforting to know that in the UK a book like Mr. Knight’s still has a prayer of a fair hearing.
* Close to a word-for-word quote from a former DC Councilmember. Things gets worse as you move from local to state and national politics.